Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Quote to Share

I became aware of this quote as I was reading one of my sister's posts on her blog. Being in the situation I am (having a young son while getting a PhD full-time and as a member of a faith where many women choose to stay at home with their children rather than work full-time) I found this quote wonderful.

Now, my preference is to be at home with my son as much as humanly possible. I love being a mother. And when I need to go out and study, I just take Hunter with me. Here he is in the Ancient Studies room at the library at Brigham Young University this summer getting used to the bookshelves so that he can study with momma. Yes, he is smiling. I take that as a good sign. What a cutie pie!

I also know that God has blessed me with certain talents and that I have the opportunity to use those talents for the good not only of myself, but of my family and the community where I study and live. In the process, I get to do what I love. If you'd like more of my opinion on the issue and the circumstances related to my stumbling upon this quote, visit my sister's blog. I pretty much agree with her wholeheartedly.

This is a quote from Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I find this quote inspiring because it was given at a time when our society viewed men and women and their respective roles very differently than it does today. Indeed, the fight for "women's rights" in the United States, including the right to vote, was just getting going in the 19th century. As an interesting aside, Colorado, Utah and Idaho were the first three states to grant women the right to vote, and the only states to do so before the turn of the century. I feel so blessed to be able to have the opportunity not only to pursue my PhD, but to do it without sacrificing the blessing of motherhood. If it had to be a choice, then I would have to choose motherhood. I mean books are cool, but they can't beat the blessing of a little baby. I am so grateful to live in a time where I have the opportunity to do both.

"As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physics, or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation" (Discourses of Brigham Young pp. 216-217).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Some Thoughts on Creativity and Education

Have you ever watched a little child? Just watched? Just to see what they can do? They are absolutely amazing. My son is not even a year old and I am constantly amazed by his ability to learn and be creative with what his has at his disposal, whether it be to communicate with those around him or just to play and have fun. He's cute, isn't he? I am really in awe of children and their incredible ability to grow and learn and absorb everything that is around them, and I wonder why it is that many people lose the will and desire to explore, to imagine and to be creative as they age. Well, many have been taught to leave their dreams and talents behind for something "practical," "better" and "secure" in their education. I recently came across this video dealing with children, creativity and education. It is a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 about how children today are being educated "out of their creativity." I was profoundly struck by it and the arguments that Sir Robinson makes. Mostly because I couldn't agree more. We all start out as little children: fun, loving, spontaneous, creative, willing to take a risk. Of course, there are many other attributes of children I could list that many adults let fall by the wayside as they age. I have recently started to wonder why it is that so many grown-ups let themselves "grow out" of some of their talents because they are "impractical," "take too much time," "won't provide a decent income," the list goes on and on. For goodness sake, few adults still dream about going to the moon again, or going to Mars. Even these scientific pursuits don't hold the attention of the masses because even in science there is a distinction between what's useful and practical for everyday life and what's not. Of course, there is a whole other discussion I could go into just about that (loving the exploration of space as I do), but I will leave that for another day.

So... take, for example, my mother. My mother used to be an artist. I believe that she still is, but she continues to refute this fact herself. She says things like, “It's been too long,” “I don't remember,” and so on. She really is quite talented. When she had children, she pretty much gave up art altogether, aside from a couple of job related activities here and there and drawing pictures for the kiddos, something which even now she at times refuses saying things like, "I can't draw very well anymore." Now, being of the generation that I am and believing very strongly that you can be both a wonderful mother and continue to cultivate your talents and use them for the benefit not only of those in your immediate sphere, but for the "benefit of society at large" (See, for example, my quote of the month), the choice she made bothers me immensely . However, for my mother, cultivating this talent alongside her family life seemed impractical, something for which I cannot fault her, her experiences being what they were. Now that I am older, I have witnessed her bemoan the fact that she gave it up, yet feeling too far from it to be able to do it again. How would things have been different if she believed that her talents were worth nurturing after she finished her education? It doesn't really do much good to speculate. The thing I want to point out is that at some point my mother was educated in such a way that she chose to stifle her creativity.

I believe that sometimes we think that we’re past the kind of thinking and education that led my mother to believe that it would be better for her to give up something she loved. We believe we are “more advanced,” that we’ve “progressed” beyond all that, that we have “the American Dream” to fulfill our lives and expectations, that we are “educated,” and able to “make something” of our lives. However, our system of education often holds children back from being able to explore and expand upon their talents and creativity. We really are "educating people out of their creativity." There is a protocol for what is proper and accepted as “useful” education and studying something else, say English, will leave you working at McDonald’s or the local movie theater (my best friend Claire has some first hand experience with this one). In fact, if you do go into the Humanities, often you’ll hear that the only really useful course for you is to pursue your PhD and become a professor (as Sir Robinson puts it, a “disembodied head”).Of course, that is rather ridiculous. There are a number of other ways to use your talents in those fields, but the educational system would often have you believe otherwise. Take my course of study, for instance. What on earth will I do with a degree that is teaching me how to read clay tablets from 3000 years ago? The first thing everyone asks me when I tell them what I am doing is “Oh, are you going to be a professor?” That does not offend me. In fact, I often wonder, 'what else can I do?' I mean, come on. There's only so much you can do with clay tablets, right? So, I do have aspirations in that direction (something which has also been mostly taught to me I suspect - I mean, professors are the pinnacle of education right? Even in the sciences.). It fits doesn't it, me living in my head and “a little off to the side”? Ah, yes, another way of describing the eccentricities of being a professor. As many in my field have told me, "you really have to be somewhat crazy to want to do what we do," and I agree this is rather true.

My sister has a different sort of story. She is a genius. I have told her this before, but then retracted the comment for fear of giving her an unnecessary ego boost (she is, after all, quite confident in who she is and her abilities). She went to college at age 16 and graduated with an associate degree when she was 17. She now has a master’s degree in Theater for Young Audiences (here's some of the cast from The Jungle Book, which she just directed). Now, one might wonder why she would choose that particular area of interest. I mean, she’s a genius right? Even I used to say (following the lead of my parents and others), “Wow, she is so smart! She could do anything she wants with brains like that! Why on earth is she studying theater? She should be going into medicine! She should be a surgeon!” What do those statements say about my education? Yeah, you guessed it. Well, my sister has a talent for theater. She really does. She is excellent at it. What a shame that people looked at her educational accomplishments and lamented the fact that she was not going into the sciences, or some other field that could “really use a brain like hers.” There it is right there; education stifling creativity, but my sister ignored all that and did what she loved, and her life is better for it.

Then, of course there is me. I left high school with the firmly instilled belief that I hated history and foreign languages. Now I am in a PhD program at the University of Chicago studying the languages, history and culture of Ancient Mesopotamia.

So, how did I get here? As a child, I used to love to pretend. Anything and everything was my imaginative playground. I played games based on nothing but what I could come up with in my head and wrote story after story of far off lands, places and people. In fact, I was so imaginative that a child psychologist at my school met with my mother to tell her that I didn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy. As if my imagination was part of some terrible psychological condition! Well, somewhere along the way I learned that my imagination was not going to get me anywhere in life, and I decided that was true. So, I stopped writing stories. If I was going to help people and make a difference in the world, I needed to be a doctor, or something like it. Science was the way to go. When I entered college, I chose to study Microbiology so that I could become a pediatrician. Fortunately, I was able to serve a mission for my church in Hungary for a year and a half, taking a break from my educational pursuits. On one particular day, some of the other missionaries and I went to visit a Hungarian historical site called Ă“pusztaszer, the place where the Magyars (Hungarians) are believed to have come into and conquered the Carpathian Basin. At the site, they have a beautiful, large panoramic painting recreating the momentous arrival of the Magyars into what is now Hungary. Here are some small excerpts:

As I looked at the painting I was immediately pulled into my imagination. I imagined what it must have been like, what the people were like, what their lives were like, and it suddenly struck me that I love history. Not only that, but that I should be studying history. What on earth was I studying Microbiology for anyway? It was because that was something that I had been taught was useful! Something admired and beneficial to society! Sir Robinson mentions his forthcoming book Epiphany in the video (I would now very much like to read one of his other books Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative); well, that experience was my epiphany. I also had the privilege of learning Hungarian and realized how much I love language. I went through my entire experience in public education believing that I disliked the things that my talents were most suited for. I finally felt that I had found my niche.

So, I ask the question: How many children in our educational system will never discover their creative talents for the treasures that they are because of the constant belittlement in our educational system of creativity in music, art, creative writing, dance, and other avenues of creative expression? In fact, the only areas where creativity seems to be fostered is in technological areas, but that is a discussion for another day. There are of course, a number of directions that this discussion could go that I haven't even touched upon. I really could go on and on, but I think I had better leave it at that.